1. Panama Hats are handmade with toquilla straws primarily by indigenous women and in Ecuador, specifically in Cuenca and Montecristi. So it begs the question, why are they called Panama Hats?
Because hats handwoven in Ecuador were exported to Panama in the 19th century during the Panama Canal construction, and from Panama, they were shipped to the world. So, unfortunately, people started to call the hat not by its place of manufacture but by its origin. Intricately handwoven with natural materials, Panama Hats were breathable, beautiful, and efficient to protect people against the intense, tropical sun. So they quickly become a worldwide sensation. Even Theodore Roosevelt was wearing a Panama Hat when he visited the Canal construction site in 1906.
2. Panama Hats have been around for centuries with virtually no change to their main weaving patterns. Here are two main types of weaving used to make Panama Hats.
It is the oldest and most straightforward weave pattern, made by crisscrossing straws to create diamond-shaped squares. The interlocking design allows the weaver to use finer straws and it takes longer to weave (from 3 days to 3 months depending on how fine the straws are). As a result, hats made using the Brisa weave appear lighter. Montecristi Panamas Hats are often made with the Brisa pattern. These hats are usually rated on the consistency of the weaver and the thinness of the straw. The Hats offered by Akili Australia are made using the Brisa Weave.
It is the second most common weave pattern. Hats made using the Cuenca weave have a chevron pattern. The method allows the weaver to work with a thicker straw since there is more space between weaves and it is also quicker to make (the lowest grades take 2 days to complete). This makes the hat good for warmer days since more air can travel through the hat, cooling your head. In addition, the looser weave permits greater flexibility.
3. Fedora is the most popular Panama Hat Style
A Panama Hat style is defined by the shape and size of the brim and the crown. The Fedora style rose to fame during the 1940s, being the hat of choice in various classic films, such as Casablanca. It remains the most popular style today, and it was used in a variety of more modern movies. For example, Anthony Hopkins famously used a beautiful Fedora Panama hat in the film Hannibal in 2001.
4. Hats made with Paja Toquilla or Toquilla Straws were first observed in Ecuador in the 16th century
The first hats woven with Toquilla Straws have been traced back to the Incas. Paja Toquilla, indigenous to the coastal regions of Ecuador, is a fibrous plant ideal to make breathable, lightweight, biodegradable and naturally long-lasting hats. The weaving technique is ancient and has been passed down from generation to generation over centuries.
5. Weaving Toquilla Straws is an art
The process to make the authentic Panama Hat is laborious and long. It starts from the cultivation and harvest of the toquilla palms. The fibre is then separated from the green outer skin.
These parts of the plants must be boiled to remove the chlorophyll. After that, they are dried before being bleached twice with sulfur over a wood fire. And then, the leaves are left for the night to dry under the moonlight.
The following day, the leaves will be dry and ready to be split into small threads by hand. Only then, professional weavers who have passed this art from generation to generation will begin weaving the hat’s crown.
Hat weaving is an extremely laborious art and a cultural matter. It is a heritage of the Ecuadorian tradition that unifies generations and the people from the southern and coastal regions. Today, weaving Panama Hats is a source of income for indigenous women in Ecuador and is a way to amplify and keep their heritage alive.